January 23, 2013

SHOWBUZZDAILY @ SUNDANCE 2013: “Emanuel & The Truth About Fishes”


EMANUEL AND THE TRUTH ABOUT FISHES is deeply, satisfyingly strange.  In a way, it’s a validation not just of Sundance, but the whole film festival system that is now our main way of finding out about distinctive new talent.  It also tells a story based in large part on a single plot development that, while revealed fairly early in the film, is still intended as a major surprise–so consider this a SPOILER ALERT and proceed with eyes open.

Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario) is the name of the girl at the center of the fantastic tale.  Her name is spelled in the masculine style because her parents believed they were having a boy, and when her mother died in childbirth, her widowed father (Alfred Molina) kept the name they’d planned.  Emanuel has had the name tattooed on her arm, as a reminder of the one decision about her life her mother was able to make.

When we meet Emanuel, her father has, after more than a decade alone but for his daughter, married again, to Janice (Frances O’Connor), a well-meaning stepmother whose conventionality ignites grenades of disdain from Emanuel.  The girl is sullen at the best of times, clearly intelligent but with no plans beyond high school, living deeply within her own head.  Then a new woman comes to the neighborhood, a single mother named Linda (Jessica Biel), and when Emanuel is pressed by Janice into babysitting for Linda’s infant daughter, everything changes.

Because–last chance, SPOILER ALERT–Emanuel quickly discovers that Linda’s daughter Chloe doesn’t exist.  Linda, although seemingly normal in every other way, lives with the very detailed delusion that a doll is her living child.  She listens for Chloe on the baby monitor, frets over her colds, knows exactly how to get her to sleep, and in all other ways treats her as utterly real.  Only Emanuel knows her secret (Chloe is always “sleeping” when anyone else comes near), and something in her sparks to the terrible loss and emptiness rattling just behind Linda’s eyes.  She keeps Linda’s secret, and the movie becomes the story of the bond that forms between the two women, and the way it changes both of them.

The director Francesca Gregorini has only made one other film, Tanner Hall, which she co-wrote and co-directed with Tatiana von Furstenberg.  Tanner, set at a private girls’ school, wasn’t terribly original (although it was notable for introducing Rooney Mara before she came to the attention of David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, etc), but it played at the Toronto Film Festival and was acquired for a mostly VOD release, which gave Gregorini some industry credibility.  That helped Emanuel get made, and the new film is a far more striking and assured piece of work.  With a premise as strange as this, the question was whether it could be sustained into a satisfying narrative, and although Emanuel will go over the top for some, Gregorini does a fine job of developing suspense and combining both Emanuel’s and Linda’s compulsions into an ending that makes emotional sense.

Scoderario could well be as much of a find as Rooney Mara was.  She’s an English actress who starred in last year’s barely-seen revamp of Wuthering Heights, and here she holds the movie together, convincingly troubled and compassionate.  Jessica Biel, finally given a meaty film role, delivers the performance of her career, dancing on tightropes of madness and suburban friendliness, approachability and profound seclusion.  The supporting cast, which apart from Molina and O’Connor includes Jimmi Simpson as a co-worker of Emanuel’s and Aneurin Barnard as her first boyfriend, is excellent.  Despite its limited budget, the film has a rich look from cinematographer Polly Morgan, and a few special effects sequences relating to Emanuel’s obsession with water and those fishes look as though they come from a much more expensive production.

Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes is an art-house picture, and won’t be to everyone’s taste even there.  It takes big risks that will leave some audiences behind.  It’s exactly the kind of exciting, revelatory film that Sundance exists to showcase.


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About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."